Warriors star Clinton Toopi ‘Our love is in a league of its own’

Introducing his perfect match, the sporting hero opens up about life after league and the changes he’s had to make for his beloved family

When former Warriors star Clinton Toopi reflects on his professional league career, it’s not his coaches or management that he credits for his sporting success. Rather, the father-of-two says meeting the love of his life, wife Turenga, at just 19 was the real reason the sporting legend was able to perform under the pressure.

“Tu came into my world exactly when I needed her,” smiles Clinton, 43, who was introduced to the “shy girl” from Bay of Plenty town Whakatāne at an Auckland fundraising event more than 20 years ago.

“She didn’t know a thing about footy, which was so refreshing,” he recalls. “There’s a real risk when you’re playing competitive sport that you can get mixed up in all sorts of bad things, like parties and alcohol. I was lucky enough to have Tu.

“She was my rock. She reined me in so I could focus on the game. Tu remains such a powerful, positive force in our relationship. She’s strong, intelligent and beautiful – all things I value to this day but probably took for granted when I was just a wannabe athlete.”

Back then, despite Clinton’s newfound fame as the Warriors’ exhilarating, free-running centre, it meant little to Turenga, 42, who fell hard and fast for the genuine, funny boy from East Auckland.

“He stole my heart on the dance floor that night,” she recalls. “Toops has the best sense of humour and the most honest nature. Even from the earliest days in our relationship, he wore his heart on his sleeve, which is why things were never complicated with us. We were young and did what made us happy.”

The lovebirds tied the knot after five years together and welcomed their first child soon after. Nowadays, the whānau of four, including the couple’s two teenage daughters Waimania, 18, and Brianna, 16, live in their home-away-from-home on Australia’s Gold Coast.

With wife Turenga and their girls Waimania and Brianna.

But Kiwis are getting a glimpse into the footy star’s life after professional sport on the reality series Match Fit: League Legends, where he and other former athletes, including Jerry Seuseu, Ali Lauati’iti and Sione Faumuina, are fighting to regain fitness. The Three show has been a lifeline for Clinton, who hung up his boots in 2011 and feared more than a decade of unhealthy habits were finally catching up with him.

“I’d been trying to change my lifestyle for a long time – get fit, get healthy, and make better choices when it came to eating and drinking,” tells Clinton, who tipped the scales at 117kg at his heaviest. “It’d become a running joke in my family that I’d change my lifestyle on Monday, but for years, that Monday just never came.”

Clinton gets match fit for good.

Compounded by the recent heartbreaking loss of a dear friend to a heart attack, Clinton knew enough was enough. “I’d never lost anyone that close to me before, so it really hit home. For a long time, Tu was telling me to put my health first and it dawned on me how much I was failing my family by not being the best version of myself or a good role model to my girls.

“I owed it to them to be around for a long time – otherwise, their kids won’t have a grandfather or someone to walk them down the aisle. That’s the stark reality of it all.”

Clinton, who is now the State of Mind Programme Manager for the NRL, thrived in the Match Fit environment, finding inspiration in his former teammates who were all walking the same path.

“The show hit me with some hard truths, and ultimately helped me find better balance with my diet and exercise. It was never about getting back into the limelight or hitting a number on the scales. I wanted to prove to myself and my family I could make a positive change, and show our community that it’s never too late to start – it’s your journey and you take it at your pace.”

Our league legends get their heads in the game

Clinton’s loved ones are already reaping the rewards of his lifestyle changes, with full family exercise sessions now a fixture in the Toopi household.

“It’s been great to see Toops in his element again, feeling fit and energised,” says Turenga, a primary school teacher who has always enjoyed an active lifestyle. “Training as a family has been a really nice, wholesome way to bring us all together.”

But the benefits aren’t only physical, explains Turenga, who adds that Match Fit has been a real eye-opener for her daughters about the reality of committing your life to sport.

“There’s this tendency to think that if you make it in footy, it’s a really gorgeous, glossy lifestyle – you’ll make a tonne of money and be set for life. But the reality is, it’s not an easy career by any means and coming out of footy can be equally challenging. The girls are seeing first-hand that these players aren’t invincible; they are all humans who’ve put their bodies on the line and this is the reality of life after footy.”

On the ball in 2004.

It’s a sore spot for Clinton, whose career was somewhat marred by a series of injuries in his later playing years. In 2006, the powerhouse traded in his Warriors jersey to play for Leeds in the UK, but a dislocated shoulder, followed by a near career-ending knee injury saw his league days numbered.

“When I got badly injured, I truly believe one of the main reasons I hung on was for my girls,” reflects Clinton, whose daughters were only two and four when he was at his prime. “They would get dressed up and come to the games, but they were at an age where I don’t think they quite fully understood it. A part of me felt like I never got to show them what Dad had achieved.”

Clinton did eventually get back to the game he loved, when he was offered a spot with the Gold Coast Titans – a contract that would see him play for a year, then transition into the workforce with their support staff.

“That really was a lifeline,” says Clinton, who knew it was time to put plans in place to provide for his family. “When I was at the height of my career, I was just riding the waves – the money, the media, the nice cars and restaurants. It creates a fake life that you think you need to stay in.

“The truth is, I came from nothing. I grew up in a state house and my parents worked their butts off. My mentality for making it in sport was to get me and my family out of that. So when the Titans opportunity came knocking, I knew it was a turning point to give up footy and get on with the real world.”

Turenga adds, “I don’t think league players are ever truly ready to hang up their boots and if Clinton had it his way, he would have kept playing for 100 years. Toops talks a lot about wanting to make us proud – and he does, in the way he puts his family first every day.”

Proud to have kicked off a lifestyle revamp, Clinton says, “It dawned on me I was failing my family by not being the best version of myself.”

But Clinton insists it has always been a team effort. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Tu,” he smiles. “She has always been my number-one supporter. We’ve been through a lot together and raised these two incredible girls along the way. When I look at their mother, she’s everything I’d love for them to be.”

The final episode of Match Fit: League Legends screens 7.30pm Wednesday on Three.

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